Cheney: Hamas spoiling peace talks

Members of a leftist Turkish party hold a banner that reads, Cheney get out of Turkey, the U.S. get out of the Middle East, in Ankara, Turkey, on Monday. The Associated Press

Members of a leftist Turkish party hold a banner that reads, “Cheney get out of Turkey, the U.S. get out of the Middle East,” in Ankara, Turkey, on Monday. The Associated Press

By Deb Riechmann

ANKARA, Turkey – Vice President Dick Cheney, concluding two days of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, said Monday that Hamas militants and their backers in Iran and Syria are playing the role of spoiler in Mideast peace talks.

“It is clearly a difficult situation, in part, because I think it’s true, there’s evidence, that Hamas is supported by Iran and Syria and that they’re doing everything they can to torpedo the peace process,” Cheney told reporters before heading to Turkey, the final stop on his 10-day trip to the Mideast.

Cheney said there’s ongoing concern about the extent to which arms are being smuggled across the Egyptian border into Gaza where they’re being used by Hamas to attack Israel.

“It’s a continuing problem,” he said. “All of that obviously has resulted in the ongoing activity of launching rockets into Israel and threatening the lives of Israelis and obviously making it difficult for there to be the kind of progress that I think we would all like to see.”

Cheney said Iran and Syria are trying to scuttle the peace process – through Hamas, in the case of Gaza, and in the past it’s most likely been through Hezbollah.

“Hezbollah went through the dustup with the Israelis in ’06,” Cheney told ABC News in an interview Monday in Ankara. “They’ve been completely resupplied by the Iranians, oftentimes providing materials through the Syrians and then flying materials into Damascus and then taking them by road into Lebanon.”

He said Hamas, Hezbollah and other militant groups have significant representation in Damascus.

“That’s where they operate from,” he said. “There’s been a very close relationship over the years, obviously, between Iran and Hezbollah. I don’t think there’s any question but what Iran and Syria have no interest in [is] seeing the peace process succeed. That’s a conclusion that I arrived at not just on my own, but also from talking with people in the region.”

Cheney, a strong supporter of Israel, talked with reporters in Jerusalem after having breakfast with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the last in a series of meetings to talk about regional issues and nudge Israeli and Palestinian leaders to reach a peace agreement before President Bush leaves office in January 2009. Cheney said Olmert told him that despite the difficulties, he would do everything he can to try to achieve an agreement this year.

Cheney traveled to Ramallah on Sunday to talk with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose moderate party controls the West Bank. He said they talked about efforts in Yemen to encourage reconciliation between Abbas’ moderate Fatah Party and Hamas, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization.

“My conclusion from talking with the Palestinian leadership is that they have established preconditions which would have to be filled before they would ever agree to reconciliation, including a complete reversal of the Hamas takeover of Gaza,” the vice president said.

The U.S. has made it clear that it will not support working with Hamas unless there is a fundamental change in the group’s stance toward Israel. Meanwhile, an Israeli official said Israel would halt peace talks with Abbas if he reconciles with Hamas.

In Ankara, Cheney talked with Turkish President Abdullah Gul, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Yasar Buyukanit, chief of the military, about Afghanistan, energy security and Turkey’s recent eight-day ground incursion into northern Iraq.

The Turkish soldiers, who are receiving real-time U.S. intelligence, are fighting against rebels in the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, also known as PKK. The PKK rebels want autonomy in the predominantly Kurdish regions of southeastern Turkey and have carried out attacks on Turkish targets from bases in the semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq.

The U.S. supports Turkey’s action against the PKK, but it must balance its allegiance to Iraq with the support it gives Turkey, an ally and member of NATO. During the incursion, which ended on Feb. 29, Bush asked the Turks to “move quickly, achieve their objective and get out” of Iraq.

Dozens of protesters from Turkey’s Communist Party held a demonstration against Cheney in Istanbul, holding banners that read “Cheney leave our country,” and “Yankee Go Home!” Similar protests were also held in the Turkish capital. “Down with America,” the protesters shouted outside the presidential palace where Cheney met the Turkish president. The demonstrators, who burned Cheney in effigy, carried banners that read “We don’t want to send our soldiers to Afghanistan,” and “Murderer Cheney.”

Turkey reaffirmed its commitment to Afghanistan but has refused to send significant numbers of combat troops to the violent southern part of the country. The Turkish leaders agreed to see if there was more they could do but offered no new commitments, a U.S. official said.

Associated Press writer Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara contributed to this report.